While Starbreeze has enjoyed acclaim from it's previous releases, the studio hasn't exactly built it's reputation on creating whimsical worlds with moving narratives. Both Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness gave their players dark and gritty worlds to explore and some unique gameplay twists to hook players. With such a pedigree Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons stands out as being wholly against type. It's the video game equivalent of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, stepping away from subject matter reserved for mature audiences to deliver a memorable experience that can be enjoyed by audiences both young and old. While seemingly stepping out of the comfort zone established by their track record, Brothers stands out as one of 2013's best, and most surprising, releases.
While the setting and tone of Brothers is a departure from Starbreeze's previous titles, they have maintained their fine tradition of offering refreshing gameplay mechanics. Each brother's ability to move is mapped to a joystick and each trigger acts as an interaction button for the corresponding brother. While some games have you changing between multiple characters to solve puzzles, Brothers allows you to control both characters simultaneously reducing the tedium of having to switch between characters or deliver commands to AI companions. Initially, this control setup may seem a bit clumsy but after taking a few moments to acclimate yourself to the setup it becomes natural. The brothers will face numerous challenges and all of them can be overcome with a bit of teamwork. Having the older, stronger brother boost his young sibling up to high ledges so that he can drop a rope is a small example in a long list of ways in which the boys can join forces to overcome the obstacles in their way. Starbreeze deserves high praise for finding so many unique ways to test players and make the most of the brother's teamwork. This is a major reason that A Tale of Two Sons succeeds. Throughout the three hour game, players will shift the brother's weight to steer a glider, use a rope that tethers the boys together to swing to far away ledges, distract a pesky dog with one brother so that the other brother can pass through an area safely and so on. In spite of how many different challenges players will face, it's not difficult to figure out what to do next. Unfortunately, this reprieve from frustration is complicated by a nasty side effect: Brothers is way too easy. Most players will feel completely untested by the puzzles and proceed almost entirely unopposed.
While it's ease means most players may not recall any of the specific challenges that make up Brother's campaign after completing it, they will almost undoubtedly remember the game's tone and narrative. The plot is simple, the boy's father falls ill and after taking him to the town doctor they are told to go in search of a cure. This is a terrible blow to the brothers since they have already lost their mother after she drowned; the younger brother in particular is scarred by her loss as he witnessed her struggle before she succumbed to the depths. Their willingness to undertake such a perilous journey is indicative how important it is to them not to loose anyone else with grief and loss becoming a central theme. While the plot is simple, it benefits from the fact that it's telling forgoes the use of dialogue. The characters speak in a made up unsubtitled language allowing players to hone in on the their inflections and gestures. This emphasis on feeling rather than exposition allows the events to soak in without being burdened by anything superfluous or disruptive to the experience. Further enriching the experience is the fact that dozens of objects and people can be interacted with that are wholly non-essential to progressing in the game and each brother interacts with these people or objects differently. The younger brother comes off as quite ornery and mischievous while his big brother is a well behaved and serious. Discovering these traits instead of having them force fed to players is far more rewarding.
Rounding out Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons as more of an experience than simply a game is it's stunning art direction and score. The fantasy world in A Tale of Two Sons is rendered in bright colors and it's texture work has an almost hand-painted quality. The home of the title characters is on the coast, near a sleepy village. This humble setting gradually gives way to more wondrous settings with picturesque mountain ranges, crystal clear bodies of water and vertigo inducing cliff sides. The studio relishes the game's aesthetics by placing benches around the world that the boys can sit on, allowing the camera to zoom in and create a post card worthy view of the game world. The colorful Disney-esque landscapes do eventually give way to some areas that have darker motifs adding a bit of gravity to the boys' trek as well as giving the world a story of it's own. While the environments are fantastic but the boys can appear a bit bland with their cartoon character skin textures and average NPC villager outerwear.
The soundtrack is haunting and nuanced, giving the proceedings a bit of dramatic flair without being too intrusive or overbearing. The somber flutes, strings and chanting that make up the bulk of what tickles player's ear drums has a unique sonic signature that adds a layer of personality to a game that, due to it's fantasy setting, has some derivative subject matter.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons may very well be this generation's Ico. It's seems that the Playstation 2's companion based cult classic was an inspiration for Starbreeze's game. Emphasizing emotion over raw exposition and dialogue, A Tale of Two Sons carves a space in players memories to reside long term. The plethora of puzzles prevents players from feeling burdened by tedious and stale routines and some darker moments later in the game remind players of the seriousness of their quest lest they get lost in the game's stunning, fantasy world. Were it more challenging, Brothers could have provided an almost flawless experience. While the gameplay may not give you a sense of accomplishment, the narrative payoff is significant enough to make A Tale of Two Sons a mandatory buy for any serious gamer.